cambridge book review

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home

David Allan Cates

An excerpt from the novel, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (Novelas Americanas 2012)


Photo: David Allan Cates

Ben landed in the late afternoon and rented a car at the airport. I’m on a journey toward self-forgiveness, he almost told the woman who handed him the keys. He felt a self-congratulatory buzz as he drove west around the big city. He listened to old jazz and found the drive comforting despite the heavy traffic. Wasn’t he brave to be finally coming home again? Later, he would remember how everything seemed normal until the car left the main road for the narrow blacktop, winding into the hills where the continental glacier hadn’t quite reached, where hundred-thousand-year-old gullies had become deep hollows between steep wooded ridges. The hollows turned and forked, turned and forked again, and the sky itself narrowed, and he lost track of direction. He drove through barely familiar lowlands riddled with springs and spongy with marsh, past abandoned farms, crumbled cabins, towns with a tavern, a gas station and a church, past rocky ridges casting shadows different from any he’d ever seen before.

Then the bluebird sky darkened, and the bright flat picture of home—the white farmhouse and red barn—that he carried in his head was suddenly confounded under a gray sky. He checked his chest pocket for the folded letter but it was gone—had he left it on the plane? He felt feverish and shivered, and by the time he turned down the long gravel driveway into the narrow between two round hills, crossed the creek and passed the barn to park in front of the house, the leaves had colored brilliant reds and yellows and oranges, then browned and fallen, and the black trunks of oak and hickory stood on the hillsides naked as skeletons.

Sara Koepke met him at the front door, her face pale as though she were seeing a ghost. “You?”

He felt a lump of unexpected shame and tried to swallow. “I should have called.”

“No,” she said, and tucked a wisp of gray hair off her forehead and behind her ear. “I’m sorry. You surprised me, Ben. Come in.”

He stepped past her and into the house for the first time in twenty-five years. It smelled of ashes and something else. The maple floor was the same. A new square woodstove replaced his grandma’s old pot-belly.

“Where’s Danny?”

“Fishing,” she said. “He’ll be home tomorrow.” Her voice trailed off.

Ben stared at her face, still elastic but her skin paler, lined, and with a fuzz of colorless hair on her cheeks and above her top lip. Also her unusually timid eyes. She looked weakened by life, turned somehow fragile. He had a feeling his gaze was hurting her. He shivered and looked away.

“Do you mind if I nap?” he asked.

“No. Please.” She seemed relieved. She led him across the living room toward the stairs so he could put his bag in his room. He shivered again and wondered if he’d packed enough clothes. The orange carpeted stairs creaked as they always had under his weight and without thinking he stepped slightly higher on the uneven third step to keep from tripping. The white walls in the stairwell were lined with photos of the girls growing up—but the air smelled like something had died.

“Sorry about the stink,” she said. “There’s a dead rat behind the plaster wall. We’re not quite sure what to do about it.”

“It’s not so bad.”

She laughed. “Yeah, right.”

He put his bags in what was once Danny and his boyhood bedroom, Jessie and Ivy’s room since then. Quickly, Sara made up one of the twin beds, folding under the mattress the fresh sheets and blankets.

“Where are the girls?”

Sara paused and looked at him, uncomprehending for a moment. “They’ve grown up.”

“Oh,” Ben said. “Of course. I just thought—” He sat on the bed and squeezed his temples with his palms. “Forgive me,” he said. “I guess I’m not as brave as I thought I was. Maybe I should leave this afternoon.” “Please,” she said, reaching out as though to stop him, thought he hadn’t moved. He stayed seated, hands on the side of his face. “Is everything okay?” Such concern in her voice, as though she thought he might be sick, might be coming home to die.

“No,” he said. “I mean yes, I’m fine.” His pulse pounded in his forehead. He wished he still had Danny’s letter. He wondered if he’d dreamed it all. He looked up and tried to smile. “I’m just suddenly very tired,” he said.

She touched his shoulder and it seemed all the blood in his body raced to where her fingers lingered.

“You feel hot,” she said, “Lie down. Sleep. Rest. Danny will be overjoyed to see you. He loved you—loves you. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

And then, like that, her fingers withdrew. Ben’s body felt limp and senseless. He waited until she left the room to lie down and crawl under the covers. He rolled on his side and shivered with feverish chill. The pillow was thicker than his old pillow and propped his head up too high. His grandmother’s old wallpaper was gone and the walls were a clean white and the woodwork and windows new. He recognized the smell of the room, though, the feel of the old mattress, and he recognized the texture of the white ceiling, even the little webs spun daily in the corners by tiny brown spiders. Familiar light streamed through the window. He and Danny had spent much of the first winter in this room killing cluster flies. Every day a hundred more were born and clustered on the window glass. And every day they killed them all, even kept a body count. Ben had had a cast on his leg and he hopped from the window to his bed and back again in the cold, double-checking Danny’s count. It was the winter after the summer their parents died. The next winter there were fewer flies. And the next, none at all.

Ben pulled the blankets up to his chin and curled into a ball to stay warm.

“When you wake, I’ll have dinner,” Sara called from the bottom of the stairs.


David Allan Cates is the author of four novels, Hunger In America, a New York Times Notable Book, X Out Of Wonderland and Freeman Walker, both Montana Book Award Honor Books, and in 2012, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, winner of a Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the 2013 Independent Book Publishers Book Awards. He is the winner of the 2010 Montana Arts Council’s Artist Innovation Award in prose and his short story, “Rubber Boy” (Glimmer Train 70), is a distinguished story in the 2010 Best American Short Stories. His stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and his travel articles in Outside Magazine and the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler.

Cates has been the executive director of Missoula Medical Aid, which leads groups of medical professionals to provide public health and surgery services in Honduras. In Missoula he works with the Missoula Writing Collaborative, teaching classes on the short shory in public high schools, and is a part-time faculty in Pacific Lutheran University’s Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program. For many years he worked as a fishing guide on the Smith River and raised cattle on his family’s farm in Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | novel | , , | Leave a comment